- Multi-course tasting menu (ours was 12 courses) with wine pairing for the entire meal at £100/person plus VAT
- For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal; you can also click on any of the images below to get a larger image
When you can’t make it to the mountain…
Behind the times as usual (whether due to laziness, wallet consciousness or purposeful intention is anyone’s guess), I had been espying The Loft Project from the distant shores of my laptop for some time. Come to think of it, maybe this was because I was a veritable ‘underground restaurant’ (that’s ‘supperclub’ to us Yanks) virgin until I recently popped my proverbial cherry at the Hidden Tea Room (which, by the way, is fantastic – see my photos here). Buoyed by this experience, I had worked up sufficient courage to make another foray into this mysterious and very en vogue world; however this time it would be for dinner, it would be haute and it wouldn’t come cheap.
What tipped me over the edge, pray tell? Well, I have been aspiring to visit the now world-famous Noma in Copenhagen (along with a number of other restaurants in that fair city) for over a year now. Somehow, this culinary cruise ship has never pushed off shore, so when I saw that the sous-chef from Noma would be the ‘chef in residence’ at The Loft Project in London in a few month’s time, I quickly secured two places on one of the three nights that he would be presiding over this above-ground, subterranean epicurean mess hall. For once, the mountain (well, at least part of it) had come to me.
But let’s backtrack briefly as, in my haste, I seem to have gotten slightly ahead of myself. For those who are not already familiar with it, The Loft Project (TLP) is run by Nuno Mendes and his partner Clarise. Nuno is a Portuguese chef who formerly ran the kitchen at Bacchus in London and has had experience working with many modern-day culinary masters from around the world, including the likes of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, Wolfgang Puck and Jean Georges Vongerichten. TLP started out as an experimental test kitchen where Nuno would invite paying guests to sample his innovative and ever-developing cuisine. As he has now finally opened his much talked about new restaurant Viajante (which in Portuguese means ‘travellers’), TLP has now evolved to host exciting, and mostly younger, chefs from around the world for a limited number of nights (normally over weekend evenings). They in effect become ‘chefs in residence’ for that week (or weeks). There are by my count three permanent kitchen staff who support the head chef and also a waiter-cum-sommelier who runs the floor. The visiting chef sleeps above the open-plan kitchen/dining room space, literally in the loft.
Samuel Miller is a 28-year old Northerner from Fulford on the outskirts of York and is following a family tradition in food, i.e. his father is also a chef. He spent over two years at double Michelin-starred Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham alongside David Everitt-Matthias (where he came second in the Young Chef of the Year awards in 2004), and since then had stints at Mugaritz and El Bulli, before going on to work for René Redzepi at Noma, which as most readers of this blog will know, was recently crowned the #1 restaurant in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in London.
My companion for the meal was the Phantom Medic (who not that long ago had dinner at El Bulli, which I interviewed him about), and we decided to go on a Friday, the first night of Sam’s three-day residency. As we rolled up a tad early, we decided to take a walk around the veritable mish-mash of buildings on the stretch of Kingsland Road that TLP occupies. We decided to duck down below to the canal, and after meandering for a while, and came upon a few surprising discoveries.
Firstly, once you got down to water level, things looked a bit nicer – there were a lot of modern developments along the waterside and we even singled out a floating vegetable allotment behind the complex where the loft is located.
Secondly, we stumbled upon a tiny café called Towpath occupying two carved-out open units overlooking Regent’s Canal. The food is Italian and looked extremely fresh and appetising (Time Out has done a little review of it here), and although we abstained as we were about to subject our stomachs to 12 courses of food, I will be back to sample the food on some sunny day this summer.
Light as a feather, I could eat forever
We eventually tore ourselves away from the friendly people at Towpath and entered TLP, along with the rest of the diners, who all seemed to arrive in unison, even though the group was made up of many different parties.
We were offered sparkling wine and had a chance to check out the scene.
We had a lovely time getting acquainted with the other diners, who ranged from Swedish and Irish businessmen (and their partners) to a group of serious Japanese foodies, including a restaurant owner, respected chef and a woman with a camera that was bigger than her face by a good measure. As we were chatting, Sam came out of the kitchen to introduce himself. He was the consummate host: mild-mannered, friendly and genuine.
As we were talking, Sam explained that he had arrived fresh from Denmark that morning and had luckily managed to smuggle a bevy of beautiful produce and Nomadic (oh yeah, pun action) concoctions from Copenhagen in his luggage for his three nights at TLP. It turned out to be an exceedingly worthwhile risk, for us diners at least. :)
As the kitchen crew got to work preparing the first course, I found myself drawn like a (hungry) fly to the bright lights of the kitchen. One of the great things about TLP is that it is a completely open kitchen, and they chefs were happy to let me watch the goings on and take as many photos as I liked. I also asked a few questions here and there, when I thought I wouldn’t be bothering, or intruding upon, them too much.
The first course was based around a central theme of orange and purple carrots. I thought the purple carrots were quite novel and had a nice contrasting effect on the plate. However, when I mentioned the novelty of the curly purple slices, the Irish gentleman sitting to my left proceeded to give me a brief lecture regarding the history of carrots, and explained that most people thought that the ‘original’ carrot was actually dark purple (if you are interested or curious, knock yourself out over on the Carrot Museum site – yes, it exists, for real). In any case, both carrots had a firm sweetness that was balanced well by the sweet and sour sharpness of the lingonberries, and subtly enhanced by the thyme oil and fresh cream. There was also an extra crunch provided by a few bits of bread salad and a few strands of mixed chewy herbs. It all held together well and was a very fresh opening to the evening.
As I was diverted by the enthralling history of carrots, I missed the prep action for the second course. This was another pretty plate of food, where the flavors again gelled well despite some slightly unusual combinations. The mussels themselves were soft, meaty, delicately rich and fresh. They were also enriched with a ‘mussel gel’ which brought an intense preciseness to their flavor. The watercress sauce was a beautiful deep green hue and lent a slightly bitter (sort of radish-like) and peppery note to the mussels, which was not at all unpleasant. But what I loved about this dish was the frozen yogurt ‘snow’. Its gentle tanginess offset the mussels perfectly and the coolness brought a very engaging dynamic to the plate, which I thought augmented the dish nicely. Again, light, dainty, delicious.
As the table played its first round of musical chairs, I took the opportunity to dash off to the kitchen to check on the progress of the third course.
This course turned out to be one of my favorites. An oddly arranged plate was presented, with a creamy tapioca base and an alternating circle of yellow and green glistening spheres (which mirrored the tapioca’s translucent pearl beads) ensnaring a pink and wormlike sliver of raw mackerel which was topped with a rutted skin of mustard and rye crumbs. Somehow, this all worked. Again, an interesting play on textures was afoot here. The unctuous tapioca acted as a unifier, evening out the combination of sweet apple and cooling cucumber as they interplayed with the creamy and rich texture of the delectable raw mackerel. The crumbs were also clever as they provided a much-needed crunch an ever so slight hint of spice. The Phantom and I were both left speechless (and that’s saying something for him).
Things were noticeably beginning to step up a notch in the kitchen and I really enjoyed watching Sam steer his team into plating up the courses from then onward. There was generally a quiet calmness as all of the elements of the dishes finished cooking (or being prepared) in anticipation of plating. Then, a sudden and nearly silent intense flurry of activity ensued as Sam and the other chefs quickly and purposefully moved around the table (and sometimes the side counter), precisely plating up each dish and checking them for uniformity and flavor. It was quite an experience for me to witness a chef operating at this level as he moved resolutely and with a quiet confidence to ensure each plate was ready for his guests. An atmosphere of friendliness and comradery was also evident between him and the rest of the team, which I found interesting as I assumed that they had not worked together before.
The fourth course of white and green asparagus was, for me, probably the most ho-hum of the evening. The asparagus spears were fresh and the rhubarb juice added a gentle sharpness. The lovage oil was very mild and offered up vaguely celery-like undertones. After the sublime mackerel dish, my reaction was kind of, “meh.”
Things hotted up as the meat made its first appearance. Earlier, Sam had promised us a nose-to-tail dining experience that would manage to remain very light, so I was curious to see how this would be delivered.
Well, the tail certainly hit the nail on the head, it was pure genius. A smiley face outlined by circular green streaks of Jerusalem artichoke and ramson onion sauce, with sliced ramson onions for eyes, was presented on a plain, white round plate. The onions themselves were to die for…so sweet and succulent. The pig tail was extremely crispy on the outside and gelatinous in texture inside, reminding me slightly of bone marrow in its consistency. Its fattiness against the snappy skin and the deepness of the green sauce made for a perfect trio. The toasted flavor of the sunflower seeds that had been sprinkled on top of the onions also worked well, in addition to providing textural alternation for both teeth and tongue.
After another round of musical chairs, I was busy catching up with my newly found Swedish friend who I had met during the welcome drinks. The next course was suddenly upon us. I have confessed before to not really knowing much about oysters (unlike other bloggers I know, who have even attended master classes and oyster-focused dinners). These oysters were presented in a new format for me: poached. The flavor of an oyster has a way of defying exact description (for me at least), so I won’t try to do it here. In fact, it is not the oysters I remember here, but the potatoes – they were transcendent. I think the potato purée must have been emulsified in butter, or something like that: it was luscious, soft and highly memorable, and a rich pot sabayon also added to the creamy delicacy that was this dish.
I spent a long time watching the brigade prepare the seventh course – it seemed to take the longest to prepare, and I had never had anything like it before.
The lamb tongue was silently cavorting with an entourage of fresh green peas underneath a thin white sheet of milk skin, which had been covered with sorrel stems, a pine glazing and barbecued pea oil, then dusted off with some salad leaf stems. I suppose it was meant to enforce the element of surprise (which unfortunately I had spoiled for myself by watching them construct the dish from the plate upwards). It wasn’t an unappetizing presentation, but I guess many people wouldn’t naturally want to dive into it straight away either. How did it taste? Well, the intense meatiness of the tongue came through strongly, but not as harshly as I had imagined it might. The milk skin, a component in some of Noma’s famous dishes, was very mild in flavor, and seemed to be there more for texture and visual impact than anything else. The subtle pine flavor suited the almost gamey taste of the lamb well, and the peas’ sweetness and slight crunch pulled the dish through to make it very enjoyable amusement for my bouche.
I spied a pot full of oozy green liquid stuff in the kitchen and resumed my place on the observation deck.
The eighth course eventually arrived in all of its green swampy glory. Not the most appetizing bowl I’ve ever been served, but the ingredients had me curious and slightly excited. It actually wasn’t as heavy as I thought it might be, and the taste of the trotters was spot on – not overpowering at all – and melded well with the deep flavor of burnt leeks (in the dish there was leek oil, leek bouillon and actual leeks) and the hint of parsley. Sam’s subtle use of textures was again evident, with some cereal flakes being strewn across the top to add some crunch. It was an enjoyable course but not one of the ones that sticks out most in my memory of the meal.
With another spontaneous shift of positions at the table, I was now sitting next to someone else as Sam came out to introduce the ninth course.
The simple skate dish was one of the highlights of the evening for me. I thought it was presented beautifully, with a few radishes – stems still intact – scattered around the edges. The fish itself had been faultlessly cooked and was firm, flaky and soft at the same time. The roast bone sauce flaunted a perfect balance of acidity and richness and the dish was lifted by the pungency and tartness of the unripe elderberry capers (presumably flown in from Denmark with Sam) that topped the fish. Perfection on a plate, or skate, as the case may be.
The last of the savory courses was being prepared and it was an exciting one to witness, with a few more intriguing ingredients on display.
While presented in a simple fashion, there was a lot more going on flavor-wise than was immediately on show. Whatever they did to those beef cheeks, they were out of this world. Soft and intensely flavorsome, they were complemented (and I would say lightened) by the acidic astringency (both sweet and sour) of the beer- and rose-pickled onions, with the brown butter and thyme oil adding a further notes of harmonious delight. The way that the sharp rose flavor lifted the beef cheek was phenomenal and definitely one of the best flavor combinations of the meal.
The first of the dessert courses was a stark affair (and not Philippe), to say the least. The cored cylinder of an apple and two similarly barrel-shaped constructions of crème fraiche mousse and red beets lay scattered on the bare plate, dangling their feet in a little puddle of sorrel granita. It was fresh, clean and almost seemed like a palate cleanser of sorts to me. There was nothing particularly interesting, save for the sorrel juice, which had a sort of sour strawberry flavor that helped to tie together the other three elements. This seemed like the least thought-out and developed course of the meal – almost an afterthought. (Note: I do vaguely recall Sam telling me that desserts were not his strong suit and that he hadn’t done them in a while, so possibly he hadn’t spent as much time on this course as he had on the previous ones).
Whatever was lacking in the eleventh course was more than made up for in the meal’s grand finale. A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced. The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intenseness of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.
(Lofty) Northern heights
The whole experience of eating at TLP was immensely enjoyable for both me and my dining companion. Everything was laid back but at the same time functioned in a timely and well-organized fashion. Wine was poured, explained and topped up; the chef presented each course; diners mingled endlessly and played musical chairs (even if there was no music); and there was a free flow between the table and the kitchen as people ducked off occasionally to watch the chefs at work and then wandered back to the table. The group of diners was diverse, interesting and the atmosphere at the table was exceedingly convivial.
One of the most amazing things about the evening – which we both commented on during the journey home – was that although we had eaten 12 courses, with some pretty intense ingredients and flavors, we felt extremely light afterwards. In fact, instead of feeling heavy and bloated – as I have been after similar tasting menus at expensive restaurants – I felt energized, completely awake and ready to take on the world. Even stranger, when I woke up the next morning, I was a full kilogram lighter than I was on the previous morning, despite eating very late, having 12 courses and having at about 6 glasses of wine (if not more), which is a lot for my delicate temperament. ;-) Possibly it was down to the Northern influences in the dining, but I still found it miraculous.
Much of the food was also full of little miracles for me. The menu had been well conceived and constructed, always slowly building, but not by too much or too quickly, and was never jarring. Some of the ingredients and flavor/texture/ temperature combinations were completely new to me, and will stick in my mind for some time to come (i.e. mussels/frozen yogurt, raw mackerel/tapioca and beef cheeks/rose-pickled onion, to name a few). Also interesting was that, while the menu was undoubtedly influenced by Redzepi’s cuisine at Noma, there was also a lot of Sam himself in the food (well, not literally), and the combination of the two for the most part worked brilliantly.
If you have the wherewithal and the financial means to do it, by all means go to TLP for one night this year. Just look at the calendar of chefs and pick one that speaks to you – because he or she will then cook for you. I doubt that you’ll be let down by the rather unique experience. Although the total cost is £115, in many ways it can be seen as pretty good value. After all, you are having an exciting and well-respected chef cook 10 or more courses for you, plus all of the wine you want and service is included in the price. You also have the rare opportunity to actually engage with the chef if you care to, in whatever way is most comfortable.
Or if you can’t be bothered with the whole process, why not check out Nuno’s own cooking at the newly-opened Viajante? His food will likely share a few similarities with the type of chefs that tend to frequent The Loft Project.
Ambience: 10/10 (though this is obviously variable depending on the 16 people who turn up on the selected evening)
Food: 9/10 (I think this is an apt score given the innovativeness of the menu and the general balance, creativity and precision to the food. While a few of the courses didn’t blow me away, the culinary experience as a whole certainly opened new doors and was a in many ways a quietly confident tour de force, utilising a vast array of primary ingredients and making them work well in their own right as individual dishes and also meshing seamlessly together as a progression of flavors and textures over the course of the evening).
Wine Comments: unfortunately, I did not take any wine notes as I was mostly concentrated on observing the kitchen and tasting the food, but nonetheless I do have a few comments. The first wine was a Gruner Veltliner (2008 Stift Kloster Neuburg, Autria) and was very pleasant, going well with both the first course of carrots and the second of mussels and frozen yogurt. I also recall that the German Pinot Noir that was served with the lamb tongue and pigs trotters worked very well and was a particularly good example (2006 Villa Wolf). A pleasant Côtes due Rhône complemented the final two savory courses of skate and beef cheeks (2008 Domaine Sarcin). The delicate and refreshing dessert wine was lovely with both sweet courses, and I could almost picture it with gentle bubbles, which would have made it into one of my favorite light sweet wines, Moscato d’Asti – it was however sans the gas and Spanish in origin, though perfectly lovely and floral in its own right, enhancing the sharper fruit notes of both desserts (2008 Enrique Mendoza, Moscatel de la Marina).
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at The Loft Project once and I paid for the meal.*